Playing God for Sustainability? Perspectives from Sussex

In May 2012, Ajay Thutupalli joined two events at the University of Sussex in Britain: a Summer School on ‘Pathways to Sustainability’, and a ‘D. Phil Day’ where fellows share their research with peers and the academic community. Below Ajay shares his thoughts on the events and ultimately asks ‘Who are we to play God with development and sustainability?’

With its ‘pathways approach’, the STEPS Centre is broadening perspectives in research and policy for sustainability.  It stresses the principle of ‘plurality’, aiming to correct the narrow top-down syndrome of policy makers by opening the discourse for alternate perspectives on pathways to sustainability. In particular, this ideology criticizes the assumption that a particular dominant pathway is the only way forward; for example GM research in agriculture.

What this highlights is UN Photo Fred Noy the importance of policy discourses for debating the various ‘narratives’ that emerge in the complex world about the pathways to sustainability. Alternate pathways under this theme need not be highways but can also be the ‘road-less-travelled’, which may emerge from remote settings but have enough merits to scale up.

On the agenda were case studies on the pathways approach, including innovation pathways for maize in Kenya, policy pathways for improved waste management in peri-urban Delhi. In the first case, we looked at the innovation pathways that fall under the 2D space of low-to-high yielding maize on the horizontal axis and low-to-high external inputs on the vertical axis. The relevant stakeholders then analyzed their merits and demerits.

In the case of waste management, we saw the alternate policy pathways, which consider the local technological options, increase the levels of privatization and decentralization. This contrasts with the dominant pathway, which tries to strengthen the formalization of the existing system.

Further, lines of enquiry that involve combinations of methods of enquiry that help us to appreciate the alternate pathways to sustainability were proposed. Questioning the ‘process of policy making’ if it excludes the alternate framings of problems and solutions by under-privileged actors is stressed.

These arguments are very important given the dilemmas policy makers are facing with ‘sustainability’ on the one hand and ‘economic growth’ on the other. Because the pathways approach seems to apply the principle of plurality to policy makers, researchers and consumers alike, the question arises ‘at what level of the agent hierarchy can this idea be upheld?’

Imagine a policy maker sitting at her desk choosing among the alternate pathways for decreasing the CO2 emissions in the short term. She is not allowed to choose n number of pathways simply because she is responsible for not leaving the world as it is. It is equally difficult for consumers. Not every consumer can allow for plurality in his choice of cars.

It is difficult to change individuals’ behaviour and lifestyles. So the bigger question is ‘how can this plurality be implemented at different levels’? Because not all research seems fitting for ‘appreciating alternate pathways’ and many scientists whether social or natural break their heads exploring the merits and demerits of a particular pathway.

There is however a body of social and natural science research, which explores two or more pathways towards sustainability. Some of this research certainly fits into the feasibility of pathways argument. Yet in this particular context, social science research is more privileged than its counterpart natural science.

If the whole idea is about including as many as possible alternate pathways (which are usually ignored) in the policy discussions then it is a powerful idea. But it’s a complex and difficult task to list diverse pathways to sustainability (both dominant and dormant), evaluating their merits and demerits in order to arrive at a consensus. How close is carrying out this task to playing God? And how close can playing God get us to leaving the world as it is?

This brings us back to the questions on role play in the policy making process.  We have the natural and social scientists, policy makers (often elected legislators or administrative beaurocrats), and the public. In the times of heated debates on policy making for sustainable futures, the question that arises is ‘who should play the role of a policy maker’?

Should the policy maker play her own role? Is she capable of understanding the rigour of evidence-based science or innovation policy? How can we remain confident that political interests do not influence this policy discourse? How important is the uncertainty (unknown unknowns) in this discourse? What about the abuse of scientific evidence? Is the policy maker capable of understanding these issues? If not who should take over?

Should the scientist take over? If yes, should it be a natural scientist or a social scientist? Or should the common man decide on the science policy for sustainability? Should we completely drop the role of a policy maker? The fundamental difference between playing these roles as I see it is in the philosophy of the roles itself. So what are the philosophies of each of these roles?

A Common man’s philosophy as I see it would be ‘Do your duty (choose a pathway) and leave the rest to nature’; that of an enlightened one or a Guru would be ‘try to realize the plurality (acknowledge diverse pathways) and if possible throw light on at least one thread (pathway) to Nirvana’ (which here we can liken to sustainability).

I do not entirely know the philosophy of being a God.  Is it the same as being a policy maker? We often see scientists playing the roles of a ‘Common man’ or a ‘Guru’. That is, they stick to a particular pathway which they believe will take them home. Others, while acknowledging that multiple pathways exist, strive for deeper insights into the success or failure of a particular pathway. So is it really possible for scientists to play policy maker (God)?

Coming to the role of a social scientist, should she be playing a ‘Common man’ or a ‘Guru’? Can she ever play ‘God’?  If yes, then how? And who should play God more often? Is it the policy maker, the scientist or the common man? In this context, Mark Henderson (see ‘The Geek Manifesto: Why Science matters’) says scientists or people with science backgrounds should be given the power of policy making, as they better appreciate the scientific vigour of evidence-based policy making.

While Dr. Richard Tol remarkably opines “There are always the questions of ‘What if?’, ‘So what?’, and ‘What to do?’ in policy making. ‘What if?’ seeks to answer what happens if we take this route. ‘So what?’ tries to provide the implications for the society. ‘What to do?’ has to do with which pathway should be chosen. Natural scientists like to answer the ‘What if?’; Social scientists, ‘So what?’; but then who should answer ‘What to do?’”. The policy maker? In other words, who should play which role? Who should play God?

The lectures on ‘Green Economy’ by Dr. Tim Jackson, ‘Eco-citizenship’ by Dr. Andy Dobson and ‘The greening of social democracy’ by Dr. Michael Jacobs raised similar questions. Is it rational to ask individuals to come together with sacrifice and plurality to build a green economy? Is this not asking them to raise their level of consciousness from being common men towards playing other roles? How can we do that?

Lacking any divine inspiration myself, let me posit this final piece of logic. If we can safely assume that God would be infinitely multi-faceted, then we can safely assume that policy makers should draw from a plurality of sources and stakeholders.

by Ajay Thutupalli, PhD fellow, UNU-MERIT. Image: UN Photo / Fred Noy.

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